The world of brain research has a secret flaw. For decades, studies into how the mind works have been carried out primarily by English-speaking scientists on English-speaking participants. Yet their conclusions have been branded as universal. Now, a growing body of work suggests that there are subtle cognitive differences between populations who speak different languages—differences in areas like perception, memory, mathematics, and decision-making. Generalizations we make about the mind might, in fact, be wrong.
In a study published in the journal Trends in Cognitive Science, Asifa Majid, a professor of cognitive science at the University of Oxford, has outlined the deficit in understanding that has stemmed from ignoring languages other than English. “We can’t take for granted that what happens in English is representative of the world,” she says.
Take, for example, the Pirahã, an indigenous people of the Brazilian Amazon. They count by approximation—what scientists call a “one-two-many” system. And as a result, they don’t perform well in arithmetic experiments compared to, say, speakers of languages like English, with a vocabulary that encapsulates large cardinal numbers—20, 50, 100. “The way that your language expresses numbers influences how you think about them,” says Majid. “It’s having number words themselves that allow us to think exact large quantities. So 17 or 23, that doesn’t seem to be possible without having words in your language.”
If you’re reading this, you speak (or can understand) English. That’s not surprising, because it’s the most widely used language in human history. Currently, about one in six people speaks English to some degree. Yet there are over 7,150 living languages today, and plenty of them make meaning in completely different ways: They vary widely in sound, vocabulary, grammar, and scope.
When English is used to carry out research into how the human brain works, scientists formulate questions based on the elements English expresses, making assumptions about what the mind, knowledge, or cognition are according to how the language describes them—not what they might represent in other languages or cultures. On top of this, participants in cognition studies tend to be “Weird”—Western, educated, industrialized, rich, and democratic. But the majority of the world’s population doesn’t fall into this category. “There is this bias in academic research, partly because of where it is done, but also because of the meta-language of talking about the research,” says Felix Ameka, professor of ethnolinguistics at the University of Leiden in the Netherlands, who was not involved in Majid’s work.
“If I ask you now, ‘How many senses are there?’ I suspect your answer is gonna be five,” Ameka says. But in the West African language Ewe, spoken by over 20 million people, including Ameka, at least nine senses are culturally recognized—such as a sense focused on being balanced physically and socially, one focused on how we move through the world, and one revolving around what we feel in our body. Yet despite this being well known, it doesn’t permeate what’s classed as scientific fact. “Western science has this huge wall,” Ameka says.
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In reality, languages across the globe have various vocabularies and word categories for describing senses, and studies are now beginning to show that this is correlated with a variation in how different populations perceive their surroundings.
For instance, it has long been suggested that we perceive our surroundings according to a biological hierarchy of sense: First comes sight, then sound, touch, taste, and lastly smell. But this universal assumption was made on the basis of experiments on English and its vocabulary, Majid notes. When her team looked at how participants from 20 different languages arranged these senses according to their importance, they had 13 ranking orders different from the English ranking. In Semai, a language spoken in Malaysia, and Cha’palaa, in Ecuador, smell is ranked at the top.
“It’s been claimed that humans cannot talk about smells, that this is something that’s impossible for language to do,” Majid says, referencing assumptions shared by thinkers from Plato to Steven Pinker. A survey of 7,000 young adults in the West found that half would rather give up their sense of smell than be without their phone or laptop. But in her studies, Majid has noted that many languages have really big smell lexicons. “Speakers of those languages are better under experimental conditions at naming novel smells that they’ve never experienced before, compared to speakers of English or Dutch,” Majid says.
Visual cues follow similar patterns. Speakers of Greek, for example, have two distinct words for light and dark blue—cyan and glaukos—while speakers of languages like English or German do not. As a result, they see colors in the world in slightly a different way. When Greek and German speakers were shown two pairs of colors—a lighter and a subtly darker blue, and a lighter and a subtly darker green—the Greek speakers noticed the difference in the blues more often than the difference in the greens compared to the German speakers, says Martin Maier, a researcher of neurocognitive psychology at Humbolt Universitat zu Berlin who has studied this phenomenon.
Although the Greek speakers did just slightly better, detecting the contrast in about 3 to 5 percent more of the blue stimuli compared to German speakers, this is a statistically significant effect. “It shows that language does actually influence perception on a very fundamental level,” Maier says. Having a certain linguistic category can make the difference between seeing something or missing it. “We can categorize without language, but the speed and the efficiency with which we categorize can be boosted,” he says.
It’s more than just available vocabulary. The way sentences are constructed correlates with where the focus of attention falls in scenes as they unfold. For instance, there are cross-linguistic differences in how people use grammar to talk about accidental events. In English, it is typical to give an “agentive” description, such as “Sofia broke the glass,” even if it was an accident. But in Spanish, the particle se is typically used, and this changes the focus of the sentence; the description of the same event in Spanish would often be formed as: “The glass broke itself.”
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Research suggests these differences affect the way that people remember accidents—Spanish speakers remember who caused something to break less than English speakers do—and this could potentially make a difference in court, during eye-witness events. It has been suggested that similar grammatical nuances affect people’s judgments of blame and financial liability. In a study that gave participants a scenario of an accidental fire that caused property damage, speakers of languages like English that give agentive descriptions tended to judge the plaintiff as more blameworthy and award them higher financial penalties.
“Grammatical construction ends up affecting how you interact with the world, and where you put attention to different things,” says Damian Blasi, a cognition and linguistic diversity researcher at Harvard University and coauthor of Majid’s paper calling out English bias in cognitive science. “The differences are very small, but it’s still telling you that your mind ends up being adapted to the patterns of the grammar of a language you use.”
Similarly, the recency effect—the general assumption that humans remember the last mentioned elements of a list if asked to freely recall them—is born from the bias of how English structures sentences. Studies show that speakers of Japanese actually remember the first elements of a list better than the last—a “primacy effect.” That might be correlated to the fact that, in Japanese, the “head” of a sentence, meaning the most important element, is often at the end: You need to keep track of a lot of elements at the start before getting to the point of the phrase. If the construction of a sentence governs how you have to process information, it also seems to have an impact on how you store it, suggests Blasi.
Many of the above examples have a relatively modest sample and effect size, Blasi says. “We are talking about subtle differences on what we think is a human universal, which is perception.” Even subtle biases can make a difference in many aspects of our everyday lives, as suggested in the research about blame in court, but also potentially in medical treatments and systems of education. The issue is that, as of now, we are not even able to form a good educated guess about how great a bias the English language has created in how we understand the human mind, says Blasi.
There’s also not a consensus yet on which way the influence is traveling. For Ev Fedorenko, a neuroscience and language researcher at MIT, there’s not enough evidence to infer that variations in language mold how people think. She’s been studying whether there are differences in the neural architecture of speakers who speak languages with different properties, which if present, might suggest that language holds this influence. So far, her studies suggest that the core features of language systems in the brain seem similar across the board.
“I don’t think that language fundamentally changes the way you think. I think it reflects the way that you think,” says Fedorenko. “Whatever is in our minds and whatever aspects of culture have shaped how we think will be reflected in linguistic patterns.” Cultures vary a lot in emphasizing what matters. If smell plays a greater role in your culture, for instance, then presumably you’ll find ways to express this in language as well. The studies about how Pirahã people do not have the language to clearly distinguish specific numerical values is probably an example of how culture influences thinking, not language, Fedorenko says. “The reason they don’t is that expressing those concepts is not critical to them.”
One thing scholars agree on is that moving forward, it’s crucial to focus on which aspects of human cognition are universal across all humans and which aren’t. Only then will we be able to tell if it is language that shapes cognition or cognition that shapes language—or even if culture shapes both. “We don’t have enough fundamental research yet to be able to address that,” says Majid. “Ask me again in 20 years.”